26 February, 2018

The Evolution of the Persian Rug

Persian Rug cleaning

SHIRAZ, Iran — For centuries, Iran’s famed carpets have been produced by hand along the nomad trail in this region of high plains around the ancient city of Shiraz. Sheep grazed in high mountain pastures and shorn only once a year produce a thick, long wool ideal for the tough thread used in carpet making. But high-quality production of hand-woven carpets is no longer sustainable on the migration route of the nomads, said Hamid Zollanvari, one of Iran’s biggest carpet makers and dealers.

Instead, he had built a factory with 16 huge cooking pots, where on a recent cool, sunny spring day men in blue overalls stirred the pots with long wooden sticks, boiling and coloring the thread. As the colored waters bubbled, they looked like live volcanos. The air smelled of sheep. Another room was stacked with herbs. Eucalyptus leaves, indigo, black curd, turmeric, acorn shells and alum, ingredients for the different colors. “The Iranian carpet is 100 percent organic,” Mr. Zollanvari declared. “No machinery is involved.”

It is a scene that seems as ageless as the women who sit before the looms and weave the rugs, a process that can take as long as a year. And now even the factory is threatened. With six years of Western sanctions on the carpet business and punishing competition from rugs “Pharnabazus appeared dressed in clothes that would have been worth a lot of gold,” Xenophon remarks in reference to a Persian satrap in his Hellenica. “And then his servants came forward to spread down for him the kind of soft rugs on which the Persians sit.”

While Alexander may have burned to oblivion many of those soft rugs when he torched down Persepolis, the Persian rug — like many other aspects of Iranian art and architecture – not only survived, but thrived, too. In the centuries that followed, rugs continued to be associated with luxury, as well as indigenous folk culture. But it wasn’t until the ‘golden age’ ushered in by Shah Abbas the Great of the Safavid dynasty in the 17th Century that the Persian rug truly became the Persian rug. Machine-made in China and India, these are hard times for the craft of Persian rug making.

Over the centuries. invaders, politicians and Iran’s enemies have left their mark on Iran’s carpets, said Prof. Hashem Sedghamiz, a local authority on carpets, sitting in the green courtyard of his restored Qajar-dynasty house in Shiraz. The outsiders demanded changes, started using chemicals for coloring and, most recently, imposed sanctions on the rugs. Those were blows, he said, damaging but not destructive.

But now, Mr. Sedghamiz said, the end is near. Ultimately he said, it is modernity — that all-devouring force that is changing societies at breakneck speed — that is killing the Persian carpet, Iran’s pride and joy. “People simply are no longer interested in quality.”

This year, after the nuclear deal was completed, the United States lifted six years of sanctions on carpets. But even with that, the Persian carpet is in a critical state as fewer and fewer people buy them.

Prior to his reign, many of Europe’s carpets came from Ottoman Turkey due to its proximity, but, as a result of various reforms and treaties brought about by Shah Abbas (r. 1588 – 1629), as well as Western colonial interests, the textiles industry was given a much-needed jolt, and began operating on a scale as never before seen. “Shah Abbas really revived the carpet-production industry,” says Dr. Aimée Froom, curator of the forthcoming Bestowing Beauty exhibition of Iranian artefacts at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. Among many other items from the Sixth Century to the 19th Century, two showstoppers will be on view at the exhibition; a rug that once belonged to Italy’s King Umberto, as well as an animal-themed one from the Safavid era.

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